A six-month undercover investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has led to the arrest of eight members of a Tampa Bay area crime ring, engaged in a multi-million-dollar scheme to illegally exploit and export the state's marine resources.
On Thursday, Nov. 13, FWC investigators served arrest warrants on five Hernando County men and one woman and two Pasco County men on 24 counts of violating state law. Other individuals may be charged as investigators delve deeper into the workings of the organization. Some of the illegally taken marine life was exported to New York and Amsterdam. Federal charges involving violations of the Lacey Act may be forthcoming.
The investigation came about as the result of tips from concerned residents. Subsequently, FWC investigators set up a fictitious company dubbed "One Tropical Way," and then advertised and bought illegally obtained products from the group that was heavily engaged in selling contraband marine life to other sources.
FWC investigators have evidence the ring had operated for at least five years and believe that retail value for the illegal products they sold was in the millions of dollars.
"Not surprisingly, some of these individuals have been arrested before on the same charges, but this time they face enhanced penalties for repeat offenses," said Capt. Andy Krause, FWC investigations supervisor.
Though licensed as commercial bait fishermen, the group caught and sold bait shrimp for human consumption. Shrimp caught, handled, transported or stored for use as bait does not meet the more rigorous health and product safety standards required for food shrimp. The ring also harvested those shrimp from an area closed to the harvest of food shrimp.
Additionally the fishermen illegally sold bycatch species such as peppermint shrimp, protected sharks, shark fins, bay scallops and sea horses. Bay scallops may not be harvested commercially anywhere in the state, and most of the other activities the ring engaged in require a Saltwater Products License with additional restricted species and marine-life endorsements. Without the proper license and endorsements, bycatch species caught in nets must be returned immediately to the water, alive.
Ring members hid illegally taken animals in secret compartments in the event their vessels were inspected by officers. Though a significant portion of the hidden bycatch died because it was stored without aeration, the group still generated huge profits from the sale of the remaining live organisms.
The FWC conservatively estimates that during its six-month investigation, the ring captured and sold more than 100,000 peppermint shrimp. A tiny but popular species with saltwater aquarium enthusiasts, the miniature crustaceans were worth an estimated $600,000 on the retail market.
A list of individuals and charges follows. At this point, all charges are first- or second-degree misdemeanor counts. First-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Second-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
1. Harley Jay Rodriguez, DOB 05/28/1979, of 3247 Hibiscus Drive, Hernando Beach, is charged with possession of commercial quantities of saltwater products, illegal sale of shark (two counts), sale of saltwater products without a license, and the illegal sale of bay scallops.
2. Charity Lynn Rodriguez, DOB 11/25/1982, of 3247 Hibiscus Drive, Hernando Beach, is charged with sale of saltwater products without a license, aiding and abetting in the illegal sale of shark, aiding and abetting in the illegal sale of bay scallops.
3. Jesse J. Rodriguez, DOB 04/03/1983, of 545 Swallow Lane, Springhill, is charged with sale of saltwater products without a license (six counts), possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis, and reckless operation of a vessel.
4. Robert Ray McClure, DOB 05/04/1970, 6163 Piedmont Drive, Springhill, is charged with sale of saltwater products without a license.
5. Patrick Howard Walsh, DOB 02/19/1950, of 6638 Oelsner St., New Port Richey, is charged with unlawful sale of saltwater products.
6. Michael B. Helmhotlz, DOB 01/25/1959, of 5001 Caliente St., Springhill, is charged with purchasing saltwater products from an unlicensed dealer.
7. Gerald Richard Sylvester, DOB 01/10/1949, of 7419 Astor Drive, New Port Richey, is charged with failure to maintain required documents on saltwater products.
8. An unnamed juvenile is charged with sale of saltwater products without a license (two counts) and possession of commercial quantities of saltwater products (two counts).